For Such a Worm as I

February 28, 2020

I remember a song leader who stopped every time he led “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?” and drew our attention to the end of the first verse.

Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

He would instruct us to sing instead, “For such a one as I.” He would remind us that we are valuable in God’s eyes. “We are not worms!” he would say. I suppose he was concerned about our self-images when called worms. And yes, I know that some people have grown up in toxic environments. But I’ve always considered that such steps were missing the point of the poetry as well as missing a biblical allusion. A proper explanation could help the person from a toxic environment as well as changing the word. Unfortunately, song book editors have also followed suit. You won’t find “worm” in the first verse of this song in our current song books either. “For such a one as I” is the substitute.

Isaac Watts wrote the lyrics to this hymn. I suspect that there is a biblical allusion behind the end of the first verse. People familiar with Scripture should recognize it. (People not being familiar with Scripture is part of the problem.) The passage is Isaiah 41:14.

Fear not, you worm Jacob,
you men of Israel!
I am the one who helps you, declares the LORD;
your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 41:14 ESV)

In context, it is God who calls Jacob “you worm.” And by Jacob, he means the nation of Israel. Worm in this passage doesn’t mean worthless, but it emphasizes that the nation is weak and helpless in comparison to God. It is God who helps and delivers them. In the same way, when it comes to our salvation from sin, I am weak as a worm. I can’t save myself.

Now I’m not lobbying to get “worm” back in the lyric. I can sing the line either way. But I think it is a cautionary tale. Do we know our Bibles well enough to recognize allusions in our hymns? When the world is crying out about something like self-image, do we know the Bible well enough to give a scriptural response? The Bible doesn’t focus on self-esteem but has us focus outwardly on God. When we do, we get a proper sense of self. When we love as God has inspired and instructed us, we also heal the hurts of this broken world.

The hymn having drawn the contrast between “the sacred head” that was offered and my helplessness as a worm, it boldly commits; “Here, Lord, I give myself away, ’Tis all that I can do!”

— Russ Holden

The Approval of Sin

February 21, 2020

We are introduced to the Apostle Paul at the stoning of Stephen. This is before his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road and his conversion. In fact, this incident in his life introduces him in Acts, and then tells how he became a persecutor of the church. What is Paul’s role at the stoning of Stephen? “And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58 ESV). Paul isn’t throwing stones at Stephen, but his presence at this scene is sympathetic with those who do. The text then reads, “And Saul approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1 ESV). Paul approves of the murder of Stephen and so participates in the sin by his approval.

Paul uses the same word “approves” in Romans 1:32. In this section of Romans, Paul has described humanity which has failed to acknowledge or give thanks to God. He depicts a downward spiral of wrong behavior, and he concludes the section with a series of sins. We are not really convicted of sin until we are convicted of specific sins. But notice the end of the list.

Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (Romans 1:32 ESV)

I don’t think we can mistake Paul’s statement. To approve sin is sin

In our current world, the definition of tolerance has changed. It used to be that tolerance involved the ability to kindly disagree. We granted the other freedom of speech and were willing to compete in the marketplace of ideas for the minds of people. The new tolerance means acceptance of other views as true or at least as true as your own. Failure to do that is viewed as being intolerant. Obviously, the person who believes in moral absolutes cannot agree with such a position, but he or she can be tolerant in the older definition of the term.

The first century culture would have accepted Christianity, if only Christians would have recognized the pagan gods as valid ways to truth. Christians couldn’t do this without compromising their faith, and some paid with their lives. We face a similar conflict, although we are long way from the persecution of the first century. Our culture will tolerate a compromised Christianity, one that will acknowledge many ways to truth and the validity of all values. But here’s the rub. To approve sin is sin.

Our goal should be to approve of what God approves and disapprove of what God forbids. We must stand for truth and morality as revealed by God. That approach will be unacceptable to many people in our society, and we must accept the fact that there will be opposition to us. But we must not fall into the trap of approving sin. To approve of sin is sin.

— Russ Holden

The Challenges of Discipleship

February 15, 2020

Jesus is about to leave the crowds behind him and cross the Sea of Galilee. Two men come to him expressing their desire to follow him: one is identified as a scribe and the other man as “another of the disciples.”

The scribe says, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” I suspect we would do everything to sign this man up. Jesus, however, reminds him of the challenges of discipleship. Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20, ESV). If we were to distill this colorful statement, it seems to mean: The disciple must value Jesus above material comfort and possessions.

It’s a challenging statement especially for those of us living in the United States. We have very comfortable lives. Even the circumstances of our poor can be favorably contrasted with the past and with third world nations today. So how do I apply this principle? A few will become missionaries and go into third world nations and not live as comfortably as we do here. But even for those of us who stay in the USA, we may practice generosity pleasing to Jesus and so live below our means in order to be generous. And who knows what the future may bring on a national or international scale? Regardless of what happens, we must value Jesus above our comfort and possessions.

The second man identified as “another of the disciples” begins with a request: “Lord, let me first go and bury my father” (Matt. 8:21, ESV). Jesus replies, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:22, ESV). As we look at Jesus’ cryptic reply, we see some who are literally dead and needing burial. But Jesus says to allow “the dead” to do the burial. Obviously, the first “dead” cannot be literal, because literally dead people don’t bury literally dead people. So, the first dead must be figurative and most likely the spiritually dead who are not responding to the call to follow Jesus. What’s the principle for us to learn? Disciples must value Jesus above earthly relationships.

Fortunately, following Jesus does not always require separation. It is only when they force a choice between family or Jesus. (See also Matt. 10:35-37, Luke 14:26). But it can happen. I knew a new Christian in college who had converted from Judaism and his parents had cut him off: he was dead to them. Converts from Islam will often lose family and in some settings face the danger of losing their lives. Jesus is making a point. The disciple must value Jesus above earthly relationships.

Jesus wants us to know up front the challenges of discipleship. The value of following Jesus is higher than every earthly value, because Jesus offers the eternal. This is not always easy, but always worth it. As we make and renew our commitment, Jesus wants us to ponder the challenges of discipleship.

— Russ Holden

Firstborn of Creation

February 7, 2020

The English phrase, “the firstborn of all creation,” is difficult in Colossians 1:15. Our English word, firstborn, simply means “the first to be born, the eldest.” If one stopped with the phrase, it could mislead someone into thinking that Jesus is the first created thing. But the context won’t allow this meaning:

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16–17 ESV)

Paul proclaims Christ as the agent in creation. All things were created by him. He himself can’t be created, so we must do some research on the word firstborn.

Among translations that attempt to be form equivalent there is a great deal of consistency: “the firstborn of all creation” (ESV, NASB, NRSV) and “the firstborn over all creation” (NKJV, NIV, NET, CSB). When we turn to translations that are functional equivalent, that is that are trying to evoke the same meaning as the original readers would have had, we see a glimmer of another meaning for firstborn: “Supreme over all creation” (NLT) and “He ranks higher than everything that has been made” (NCV). This gives us a clue that there is more going on.

One tool that is accessible to English Bible readers is the footnotes of the NET Bible. They are very helpful because they deal with translation issues. The footnote at Colossians 1:15 reads:

The Greek term πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) could refer either to first in order of time, such as a first born child, or it could refer to one who is preeminent in rank.

Another example of this usage as noted by the NET footnote is Psalm 88:28 in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It reads:

And I will place him as firstborn
High above the kings of the earth. (Lexham English Septuagint)

This is case where “firstborn” (prōtotokos) only refers to supremacy of rank. It does not seem to be concerned about time. Time of birth is missing from this passage. That means the Greek word “firstborn” has a range of meaning which are English word does not have. This makes it difficult for the English reader to get the right meaning without some checking.

Why does Paul use “firstborn” (prōtotokos)? Colossians 1:15-20 is poetic. My Greek text even prints it as poetry. For a discussion of the poetic nature of the section, see the NET Bible footnote. “Firstborn” in 1:15 is balanced by “firstborn from the dead” in 1:18, which doesn’t present problems for us in English. Paul links together in this wonderful passage creator and savior.

— Russ Holden